Professional Artist Portfolio Critique #2

Video critique of professional artist Traci Turner’s portfolio

by Clara Lieu

Many people think that being an artist is only about creating the artwork.  Actually, there are several other aspects of being an artist that can carry almost as much weight. Critique is a huge part of the creative process for artists.  The opportunity to get advice on your artwork is critical towards an artist’s growth and progress. Inherently, all artists are stuck in their own heads when they produce their artwork. No artist ever gets to a point where they no longer need feedback on their artwork.  For this reason, it’s impossible to see your work objectively, which is why it’s so important to get a fresh set of eyes to look at your work and evaluate where it’s going.


Even though I’ve logged over a decade as a professional artist, I still have to take initiative to seek out my artist friends and colleagues to critique my work. Frequently, they’ll point out some aspect of the work that I hadn’t even thought of, or was super obvious to them, but that I was oblivious to.

Unfortunately, unless you are enrolled in a studio art degree program, there are very few opportunities to get trusted, professional feedback on your artwork.  From my research, I’ve seen that there is a lot of content on Youtube about people talking about how to speak at a critique, and describing how a critique works, but the problem with this approach is that it only goes so far. Ultimately, one needs to see a critique to truly understand what a critique entails. If someone explained to you verbally how soccer was played, you would understand technically what the game involves.  However, until you actually got on a soccer field and physically kicked a ball yourself in a real soccer game, your understanding of soccer would remain superficial.

Student Artwork, Drawing Foundations, Clara Lieu, RISD Pre-College

Group critique at RISD Pre-College

Currently, there is almost no content online which shows an actual art critique.The content that I did find was either completely out of context, or so poorly put together that it was basically useless. The other places I’ve seen art critiques is in online forums, but the problem with this context is that 1) the critiques are typed which is inefficient and not as impactful, and 2) the feedback is coming from sources you can’t necessarily trust and 3) people rarely want to critique the artwork of others-the vast majority of these forums are flooded with artists begging for a critique, but no one is responding.

This is why here at Art Prof one of our initiatives as an educational platform is to show audio and video critiques of artwork submitted by you, our audience. Sometimes artists will think that a critique is only useful if it’s their work being reviewed.  On the contrary, my students at RISD are always commenting how much they learn and gain from watching and listening to a critique of another student’s artwork.  In some ways, it can be easier to watch someone else’s critique because you’re removed from the process and can see the critique more objectively.


Painting by Traci Turner

Above you can see a portfolio critique I did for professional artist Traci Turner.  Stayed tuned for more critiques!  Prior to our launch, we’ll continue releasing Crit Quickies, 4 Artist Critiques, Interactive Video Critiques, Art School Admissions Portfolio Critiques, and Professional Artist Portfolio Critiques. Get more information about our critiques and how to submit your artwork here.

ART PROF is a free, online educational platform for visual arts for people of all ages to learn visual arts in a vibrant art community. Imagine all of the resources here on our blog, except exponentially bigger, in greater quantity, and in more detail. Our Kickstarter campaign hit its $30k goal on July 19!  Get info on our future launch by subscribing to our email list.

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Art Prof Intern: Anna Campbell

Anna Campbell 3

by Clara Lieu

There are many high school students who have strong drawing skills, but few know how to think critically and speak articulately about their artwork and the artwork of their peers within the context of a group critique. The vast majority of students who I have taught at RISD Pre-College have never experienced a group critique before, so I know it’s my job to introduce the students to the idea of a group critique.  Group critiques are an exercise that takes a lot of getting used to, and even then, it’s still challenging for many students for several reasons.  Critiquing artwork is a skill that takes time and experience to develop, and every single critique is completely unique.

Presenting and speaking about your artwork in front of the entire class can be really nerve wracking, and discussing the artwork by your peers is tricky.  I know that many students worry about the social backlash that can sometimes occur if someone doesn’t take a comment in the way it was intended.

Anna Campbell was one of the rare students I’ve had in my Pre-College classes who was able to dive right into group critiques and offer helpful, constructive comments to her classmates. She was encouraging and supportive of her classmates, but was also candid and honest. Anna’s presence during group critiques was very important to the class: I thought about her as an “engine” who set a serious, focused tone to the conversation and who also inspired other students to participate at the same time. She offered thoughtful and clear ideas during group critiques, and was able to provide helpful suggestions for her peers with enthusiasm.

Copy of 1 Playing God (18x24, caran d'ache self-portrait)

On top of her terrific critique skills, Anna was also extremely versatile in her artwork.  In my Design Foundations course, she was just as confident creating work in a bright, graphic style (as seen in her playing card designs below) as she was creating dramatic, foreboding images by drawing with color. Anna combined her techniques with innovative concepts as well, something few students in high school think to do. The drawing above was her depiction of how she organizes her friends in her head.  The image she developed had an unusual, surrealistic look, and portrayed her concept effectively.


Let’s hear from Anna now:

Hi! I’m Anna, freshly out of high school and about to move from Chicago to Providence to attend RISD this fall, where I hope to study illustration. In addition to being an artist, I’m an avid reader, collector of odd words, and ice cream enthusiast.

Though I’ve always expressed myself via drawing and faithfully filled sketchbook after sketchbook, I didn’t really think of art as a viable future option until my junior year of high school, when I began probing my interests and researching more.

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It was my amazing experience at RISD Pre-College in the summer of 2015, where I studied under Prof Clara Lieu, that solidified my decision apply to RISD. (I wasn’t accepted to Hogwarts, so I figured art school was the next best thing) The mix of constructive criticism, skilled professors, and fellow artists I found there made for an incredibly stimulating learning environment and one of the best experiences of my life. I’m excited to share that same mix of awesome with others looking for educational art resources through Art Prof!

ART PROF is a free, online educational platform for visual arts for people of all ages and means. features video courses, art critiques, an encyclopedia of art supplies, and more.

FB    Youtube    Pinterest     Instagram    Twitter    email    etsy

Prof Lieu offers video critiques on portfolios for students applying to art school and working artists. More info.

Every month, we assign a topic for you to respond to with an artwork. We give out prizes in several categories!  More info.

ASK THE ART PROF was a written column in the Huffington Post from about art related topics. Visit our Pro Development page.

Related Videos
Youtube Playlist: Video Critiques on Art School Admissions Portfolios
Youtube Playlist:  How to Draw a Portrait with Charcoal and Cross-Hatching
Youtube Playlist:  Crit Quickies, 1 min. critiques on artworks

ART PROF Intern: Olivia Hunter

A gigantic part of ART PROF is the extraordinary team of current students and emerging artists who make up our group of 6 Teaching Assistants and 10 Interns.  They’ve done everything from brainstorming their eyes out in long discussion threads, replied to panicked text messages from me at 7am, told me when I was doing some stupid,  (which happens pretty often) talked me out of some really bad ideas, explained to me how to use Snap chat (you know you’re old when someone younger than you has to explain technology to you) and in some cases, prevented what could have been seriously disastrous situations by thinking quickly on their feet. They’ve even had the audacity to give me my own advice. 🙂

ART PROF would not be what it is today without this phenomenal team. Starting today, I’d like you to meet these incredible artists and their contributions to ART PROF. In the coming weeks, they’ll share with you art tips and advice that can only come from a seasoned artist, anecdotes about their art school experience, tell you some hysterical stories about me, and even make some artworks specifically for ART PROF.


When I met Olivia, I knew immediately within about 5 minutes of talking with her how thoughtful, intelligent, and hardworking she was.  Sometimes when I meet people my first impression is totally off, but in this case, I just knew. It’s extremely rare that a student would begin my class with so much self-discipline and willingness to work.  The vast majority of students in my classes take at least 2- 4 weeks to figure out how to manage their time and adapt to the rigor of the course. Not Olivia, she invested monumental hours of labor into her pieces, was incredibly tenacious, and was so willing and receptive to try anything.


I’ve been teaching for a decade now, and let’s just say it’s getting harder and harder for me to remember specific students and project. However, Olivia’s final project has been burned into my head since I saw it for the first time.  (see above) Olivia and I both agree that the critique she received in this class wasn’t her strongest of the semester, and that it had some composition issues. Fundamentally though, I found the concept behind the piece to be very moving and absolutely riveting. Even the four words in the piece by themselves were so powerful and emotional. You can see all of the pieces Olivia did in my class here.

When Olivia helped out with our shoot a few days ago, she and I had a brief conversation about maybe doing some future pieces that might develop the idea further. Now I want you to hear from her!


“Hi! My name is Olivia, and I’m from Boston, Massachusetts. I just graduated from high school and I am super excited to go to the Parsons School of Design in the fall of 2016.  I’m planning to major in Communications Design.

All of my life I have loved making art in almost every form, especially photography, painting, and drawing.  Fun fact: a small section of my bedroom is dedicated to my growing collection of vintage film cameras!  The art program at my high school really allowed me to explore the different areas in art, through focused and attentive art educators and syllabi that pushed me to think creatively.

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With this being said, I still felt like I was missing something or someone to push me even further. After attending the RISD Pre-College progam and being in Proofessor Lieu’s Design Fundamentals course, I learned so much about myself as an art student. RISD Pre-College was what ultimately what made me want to go to an art school!

It saddens me when I hear about many school art programs being almost non-existent. I love being a part of ART PROF since this platform will help those  without access to art classes, so they can practice art more and to learn to think creatively.”


ART PROF is a free, online educational platform for visual arts for people of all ages and means. features video courses, art critiques, an encyclopedia of art supplies, and more.

FB    Youtube    Pinterest     Instagram    Twitter    email    etsy

Prof Lieu offers video critiques on portfolios for students applying to art school and working artists. More info.

Every month, we assign a topic for you to respond to with an artwork. We give out prizes in several categories!  More info.

ASK THE ART PROF was a written column in the Huffington Post from about art related topics. Visit our Pro Development page.

Preparing an Art Portfolio for College Admission

Class Photo

I finished up teaching RISD Pre-College last Friday, and as usual I’m collecting my thoughts after a packed 6 weeks of teaching. In the final week, I was particularly struck by how unprepared most of the Pre-College students were in terms of their portfolios for art school admission.

On the last day of class, I gave the Pre-College students the option to have individual appointments with me to review their portfolios.  Out of the approximately 50 student portfolios I reviewed, I didn’t see a single student whose portfolio was ready. In fact, the students weren’t even close in terms of the level of quality that is required to gain admission into a rigorous undergraduate art program.

Out of the hundreds of student artworks in portfolios that I reviewed last week, I can count on one hand the number of drawings that were drawn from direct observation. Almost every drawing I saw was a tight pencil drawing copied from a photograph with the subject in the dead center of the composition, with a blank white background. I’ve never understood the exclusive use of pencil as a drawing medium in high school students, when you consider the amazing range of wonderful drawing materials that are readily available.  Students told me left and right that they were instructed to do pencil drawings only from photographs by their art teachers, to use a grid method to draw, to strive to make their pencil drawings as photo realistic as possible, as well as other terrible drawing methods.   On top of that, every student told me that they were basically building their portfolios on their own, with no help or advice from anyone.  I told pretty much every student that they had to start over.

Chipboard Sculptures

I discussed strategies with the Pre-College students about what they should do to improve their portfolios, as well as what to avoid for their portfolios. However, it seems that the problem goes far deeper than that. From my experience, the root of the problem is that the vast majority of high school art students have no idea what makes for a good quality artwork. In athletics, it is obvious who scored the most points to win the game, or who ran the fastest.

Visual arts is challenging because what defines a compelling artwork is subjective, what is “good” to one person may well be “bad” to someone else.  In this particular context, I’m not trying to label artworks as “bad” and “good.”  I’m talking about simply weeding out the artwork that is total garbage (most of what you see on the Internet), which apparently is all the Pre-College students are looking at for inspiration.  When I asked the Pre-College students who their favorite artists were, they either said they didn’t know any artists, or showed me an amateur’s work on Tumblr. Not one student named an artist who would be in any standard art history textbook. If these students don’t even have an understanding of what is good quality artwork is to begin with, it makes sense that they would not know where to begin with their own art.

Foamcore Staircase Assignment

I don’t know any other field where at the high school level, most students don’t understand what they should be striving for, have no options for rigorous training, and are taught faulty methods.  It’s the equivalent of a soccer player not understanding that to win you have to score more goals than the other team, and then on top of that, having a coach they see once a week for one hour, who trains them to kick the ball only with their heels. Sounds ridiculous?  Well, from what I heard from my Pre-College students this summer, that pretty much sums up how many high school students experience visual arts.

As an art professor, it upsets me that my Pre-College students were left to navigate their portfolios on their own, and that there was no one to steer them in the right direction. It is no fault of theirs that they didn’t know what to do, or how to do it. One thing I am sure of is that you cannot train to be an artist on your own.  Like any other field, you need a continuous support system of established mentors, competitive peers, and rigorous programs behind you.  And yet in visual arts in high school, most students are left sitting on a mountain in isolation, being forced to reinvent the wheel by themselves.

ART PROF is a free, online educational platform for visual arts for people of all ages and means. features video courses, art critiques, an encyclopedia of art supplies, and more.

FB    Youtube    Pinterest     Instagram    Twitter    email    etsy

Prof Lieu offers video critiques on portfolios for students applying to art school and working artists. More info.

Every month, we assign a topic for you to respond to with an artwork. We give out prizes in several categories!  More info.

ASK THE ART PROF was a written column in the Huffington Post from about art related topics. Visit our Pro Development page.

The Quintessential Problem for High School Art Students

2015-07-08 12.08.13

This summer I’m teaching 5 classes of  Drawing Foundations and Design Foundations in the RISD Pre-College program.  Every year, every class is distinct, and offers a different set of challenges for me. Despite how unique every student is, there is one universal problem that I see across the board in all of my pre-college classes:  when students stop working on their projects too early.  The majority of student artwork I’ve seen in the past few weeks is off to a good start, but is noticeably unresolved because students stepped away from the work prematurely.

This tendency to leave an artwork early is understandable; many art students fear that if they work on their projects for too long, they will ruin it. Their desire to protect the final results in order to ensure a certain degree of success shuts down their willingness to take creative risks.  Consequently, many art student miss out on opportunities that might have arisen if they had just given their project another hour.

Creating an artwork is a roller coaster ride where nothing is guaranteed. Many art students have an unrealistic expectation that an artwork should improve in a linear manner, and that if they hit a rough patch that the apocalypse has arrived and nothing in their project can be salvaged. On the contrary, I’ve witnessed students kill their projects and then resurrect the artwork later. I’ve seen students dig themselves out of seemingly hopeless situations and emerge with outstanding results.

Skeleton Drawing Assignment

Learning how to bring an artwork to true completion is one of the most important skills to gain as an artist.   If you are running a marathon and drop out at mile 15, it doesn’t matter how far ahead you were at the beginning because you didn’t finish the race.  I tell my students that no matter how flawed or unpleasant their process was, to make sure that they cross the finish line.

I once had a student who struggled enormously with the craftsmanship of a collage project.  He was extremely frustrated and clearly had no experience with the materials: there was glue everywhere, finger prints, the paper wasn’t cut cleanly, etc. However, his piece fundamentally demonstrated that he developed a strong grasp of composition through the piece, which was one of the primary objectives of the assignment. His composition was dynamic and spacious.  Although this student’s technical execution of the materials was a complete car crash, he still followed through and finished the piece. He was mortified at the critique by his poor technique, and was shocked when I commended him for his efforts. I have tremendous respect for the fact that he kept working on the piece, despite his awareness of how sloppy his technique was. It’s never fun to work on a project that you know isn’t going well, and I commended the fact that he pushed through and finished the race.

Skeleton Drawing Assignment

The difficulty is that there is no “correct” way to finish an artwork, so how do you know what is truly finished?  To figure this out, I encourage my students to intentionally overwork their pieces. This can be a painful, as you can easily lose good parts of your piece in the process, and the results are not always pretty.

I had a RISD student who worked on a charcoal drawing to the point that the surface of the paper started to deteriorate. She was up all night working, and was extremely frustrated that nothing was progressing.  When she brought the drawing in for the group critique that morning, it looked like a a civil war had been waged on her drawing. This was the worst drawing she did all semester, but she told me later that the experience was tremendously valuable. She had pushed the drawing well beyond what she thought was reasonable.  Since she went too far with that drawing, she had a better understanding of where her limits were, and was able to pull herself back for the next assignment. I tell my students to let one of their assignments be a “sacrifice drawing,” where they give up any intention of creating a successful piece, to figure out where their limits are.


If you’re an art student, stay with your pieces. Something amazing might be just around the corner, but you’ll never find it if you get up and leave. Sometimes just 60 minutes is all the difference in the world.

ART PROF is a free, online educational platform for visual arts for people of all ages and means. features video courses, art critiques, an encyclopedia of art supplies, and more.

FB    Youtube    Pinterest     Instagram    Twitter    email    etsy

Prof Lieu offers video critiques on portfolios for students applying to art school and working artists. More info.

Every month, we assign a topic for you to respond to with an artwork. We give out prizes in several categories!  More info.

ASK THE ART PROF was a written column in the Huffington Post from about art related topics. Visit our Pro Development page.

RISD Pre-College Summer Program, 1993

Student Artwork, Drawing Foundations, Clara Lieu, RISD Pre-College

Returning to teach for the RISD Pre-College program this summer has me reminiscing about my own experience as a pre-college student, way back in the summer of 1993. Despite the many years I’ve worked as a professional artist and professor, I still look back on those 6 weeks as the most pivotal moment in my career as an artist.

High school was a dreadful, humiliating experience for me. I was intensely angry and depressed, with no outlet in sight.  I was told by many adults that high school would be the “time of my life,” which was more salt to the wound.  If the “time of my life” meant having a hideously low self-esteem, being emotionally manipulated by my friends, and overwhelming feelings of isolation, what could I possibly have to look forward to? Today, whenever I teach high school students, the one message I always make sure to leave my students with is “it gets better.”

RISD's beach in spring(1)

The public high school I went to worshiped students who excelled in athletics and academics. If you didn’t fit into these two categories, you basically didn’t matter.  The art classes at my high school were pathetic.  Most of the students who enrolled in the art classes were just looking for easy course credit. On top of that, the head of the art department was extremely adversarial towards me. My senior year,  I volunteered to organize a major student art exhibition, (which had never been done before) only to have it killed by the head of the art department.  The following year, after I had graduated, guess who organized a student art exhibition? I was livid when I found out.

Design Foundations, Clara Lieu, RISD Pre-College

Then, the summer of my junior year my parents let me attend the RISD Pre-College program. Suddenly, I was plunged into this extraordinary artistic community and environment.  I was in complete disbelief that a place like RISD could exist in the world. I saw my own passion for art in the other students, and fostered friendships, many which remain today.  I treasured every minute of my classes, and worked on my homework assignments with feverish enthusiasm.  The teachers I had took me seriously and treated me with respect and understanding.  I remember the first thing my design teacher said to me was “You work with such conviction!” For the first time in my life, I wasn’t a freak anymore.

That’s not to say that the program was a cake walk.  I hated my painting teacher for the first 4 weeks of the program because he didn’t automatically shower me with praise. (we eventually bonded in the last 2 weeks) There were many late nights working in the studio. I will admit to being jealous of other students’ abilities and having to confront the cold, hard fact that I was no longer “the best.” Despite all of these challenges, the bottom line was that the program had fundamentally changed my life forever.

Drawing Foundations, Clara Lieu, RISD Pre-College

When the program ended, I was devastated. My friends and I spent the last night crying. I couldn’t accept that I had to return to high school. When I came back to high school, I was still angry and frustrated, but I was also different. RISD Pre-College had given me a glimpse of what my life could be like. I held onto that glimpse, and it gave me the strength to get through that final year of high school. I stopped caring about what other people thought, kept in close contact with my pre-college friends, and went full speed ahead with my artwork. In January of 1994, I was accepted into the RISD undergraduate program, and the rest is history.

ART PROF is a free, online educational platform for visual arts for people of all ages and means. features video courses, art critiques, an encyclopedia of art supplies, and more.

FB    Youtube    Pinterest     Instagram    Twitter    email    etsy

Prof Lieu offers video critiques on portfolios for students applying to art school and working artists. More info.

Every month, we assign a topic for you to respond to with an artwork. We give out prizes in several categories!  More info.

ASK THE ART PROF was a written column in the Huffington Post from about art related topics. Visit our Pro Development page.

Related Articles
“What are common mistakes in college portfolio submissions?”
“What should you include in an art portfolio for art school or college?”
“What is the purpose of a degree in fine art?”
“7 tips for surviving art school.”
“How can I prepare myself for the reality of the future?”
“To what extent do grades define an academic career in visual art?”
“Should I drop out of art school?”

Ask the Art Prof: What Should You Include in an Art Portfolio for Art School or College Admission?


by Clara Lieu, Adjunct Professor at RISD & Partner at

Preparing a portfolio for college admission is not a casual undertaking, it’s very common for high school students to underestimate how much time and labor is involved.  For most students it takes several months, even up to a year to create a body of work that is rigorous enough for the competitive art school and college admissions process.   If you can maintain a prodigious level of production, the quality of your work will progress tremendously and you’ll have many more pieces to choose from. Even of the portfolio requirements state that you only need 15 pieces, this means you should aim to create between 20-30 pieces. Not only will your work improve from more experience, but you’ll be able to weed out the weaker pieces and emphasize only your best work.

2018 update has a FREE Art School Portfolios Course, with videos of art school students giving tips and a gallery of student portfolios.


View our Art School Portfolio Gallery of student portfolios on

Every school is going to have their own unique set of requirements, so be sure that you check each school’s guidelines first. I recommend re-reading the guidelines multiple times as you’re working on your portfolio to be certain at every stage that you are following their precise requirements. On top of that, remember that several art schools and college also require that students create a few artworks specifically for their application on top of the portfolio. You’ll need to set aside time to work on these specific assignments in addition to creating the entire portfolio. The tips I offer below are basic essentials that should apply to most schools.

Charcoal Drawings of Bones

1) Create original work from direct observation.

This is hands down the number one, absolutely essential thing to do that essentially all high school students fail to do. This problem is so prominent, that drawing from direct observation is now the rare exception among high school art students. Just doing this one directive will distinguish your work from the crowd, and put you light years ahead of other students.

It is easy to see why students have only learned to draw from photographs: photographs are much more convenient, and you don’t have to work as hard to get half decent results. However, drawing is not about turning yourself into a human xerox machine and trying to create a perfect replication of a photograph.  There is nothing artistic or creative about copying a photograph, it’s simply a sterile, mechanical process that is dull and boring to look at. On top of that, most students will download a poor photograph off the Internet, so the photograph isn’t even one that they shot themselves.

In addition to making poor portfolio pieces, drawing from photographs causes students to develop terrible drawing habits that will be difficult to get rid of later.  The college freshmen I teach at RISD who haven’t drawn from life before have a very tough time making the transition in college because their drawing habits are so bad. Read this article I wrote about the importance of drawing from direct observation, and about the bad drawing habits that develop as a result of drawing exclusively from photographs.


Many students complain that if they don’t draw from photographs, “there’s nothing to draw,” which I find impossible to believe.  Self-Portraits drawn from a mirror are a good option if you want to draw faces, you can set up a still life of objects easily, and interior spaces and landscapes are everywhere. Drawing from life is only boring if you decide it’s going to be boring, there’s an entire world of exciting subjects to observe.  The French Impressionist painter Claude Monet made hay stacks exciting to paint. Personally, I can’t think of a subject that sounds more dull to paint, and yet he saw beautiful light and color in those hay stacks and created extraordinary paintings.

Be the exception and do not copy your work from photographs or other sources. This means no fan art, no anime, no manga, no celebrity portraits, nothing from another artist’s work.


The student did this charcoal drawing above, completed the drawing by setting up a chair in a dynamic position and then arranged shoes throughout the scene to create a lively composition. He took the self-initiative to construct a set up that would be visually exciting to draw from. Take the time to create subjects that you’re engaged in, you won’t always stumble on an interesting scene to draw, sometimes you have to take the initiative to create it yourself.

Below is a drawing in color video tutorial that demonstrates from beginning to end, how to draw a still life from direct observation using crayons.


Still Life:  Drawing in Color, video course on

2) Have a variety of subject matter. 

This demonstrates your willingness and interest to work with different subject matter. Figures, self-portraits, still lifes, landscapes, interiors, are all excellent subjects to address in your portfolio.  Admissions officers don’t want to see a portfolio of twenty self-portraits.  A portfolio with only one topic comes across as narrow minded and limited.

Students are always asking me how much they are expected to show works that are related to their intended major. Most art schools will not expect you to already have expertise in the field you are planning on majoring in during college. For example, if you want to major in Graphic Design, your portfolio should not be 20 graphic design pieces. You can certainly include perhaps 1-2 graphic design pieces if you have them, but overall you should focus on showing that you have a wide, well rounded skill set.


Self-Portrait from Life, video course on

3) Demonstrate brainstorming, thinking, & ideas. 

Keep in mind that Admissions officers are looking to see much more in your portfolio than several classroom exercises; they want to see that you are able to express an opinion, a narrative, a mood, an emotion, perhaps a political statement even, etc.-whatever it is that you want your artwork to communicate. Show in your pieces that you are engaging with your subject matter beyond just being visual eye candy. Create several pieces for your portfolio that show that you are thinking about your subject matter, and brainstorming ideas for your pieces.


Art Dares on

If you’re looking for ideas for subject matter, check out our Monthly Art Dares, (watch video above) where we assign a prompt to create, with prizes as well!  On my Pinterest page, I have a collection of narrative drawings from my courses at RISD that show drawings that explore subject matter and brainstorming in great depth.

This post talks about how to brainstorm ideas for your artwork. Below is a video tutorial that demonstrate the brainstorming process step by step, working with the prompt for the Art Prof October Art Dare “Your Future Self.”


4) The vast majority of your portfolio should be finished artworks that are neatly presented. 

Unless the school specifically requests to see images from a sketchbook, assume that they want to see finished artworks. It would be find to include 1 image or 2 of a sketchbook that demonstrates your thinking, sketching, and brainstorming process, but probably no more than that. Be sure that everything else in your portfolio is a work that has been 100% fully realized.  This means no white backgrounds, no dirty fingerprints, no random sketchbook drawings, no ripped edges, no half finished figures, etc. This charcoal drawing below by one of my students has some good qualities, but the student completely neglected to extend the drawing to the edge of the paper, making for a sloppy and unfinished presentation.


The quintessential problem I see in artwork by high school students is not bringing a piece of a full finish.  Many portfolio pieces I see by high school students are only about 50% finished, and have big problems like glaringly empty backgrounds and lack detail. The majority of students stop working on their projects prematurely, which leads to works that are unresolved.  Read this article for more on how to bring your artwork to completion, and this article for techniques to determine when an artwork is finished.

5) Demonstrate versatility in a range of different media.

This exhibits that you have taken the initiative to learn and hone skills in contrasting media.  It shows that you have more than one skill set, and can move fluidly from one media into the next. Include drawings, paintings, sculptures, mixed media, digital media, printmaking, or anything else that you’ve had experience with.

Make sure that you have both black and white pieces as well as works that display a full range of color. The color pieces you show in a portfolio should demonstrate that you can use color in different capacities.  You can include some monochromatic pieces, some pieces that have a more subdued color palette, or a pieces that use highly intense, saturated colors.

Below are examples of high school student artwork from my RISD Pre-College Program courses that demonstrates a wide range of different media.

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If you’re looking for a way to include color in your portfolio, but don’t have the resources or experience to do acrylic or oil painting, (acrylic and oil painting can get costly, and if you don’t have the proper training, both mediums can be excessively difficult to learn on your own) I recommend doing drawings in chalk pastel or Caran d’Ache crayons. The best brand of chalk pastels is Rembrandt, but be aware that this brand is expensive. A more affordable brand that has decent quality for chalk pastels is NuPastel. Make sure with chalk pastel drawings that you’re using a neutral colored pastel/charcoal paper, white paper is nightmare to draw on for chalk pastels. For Caran d’Ache crayons, I recommend drawing on black or neutral colored mat board.  You can watch an entire video course on drawing in color using Caran d’Ache crayons on


6) Strong drawings are critical.

Accomplished drawings are the heart of a successful portfolio when applying at the undergraduate level. You might have 15 digital paintings, but none of that will matter if you have poor drawings.  In terms of drawing media, the vast majority of high school students are creating tight, conservative, photo realistic pencil drawings drawn from photographs. Drawing is not about just copying a photograph as accurately as possible; we now have cameras that can do this instantly with incredibly precision and quality. Ask yourself what you can express with your drawing that a camera would not be capable of producing by itself.

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Check out these examples of student charcoal drawings done from direct observation (see above) by high school students from my RISD Pre-College courses.  This charcoal drawing tutorial I did shows the entire process of creating a portrait drawing in charcoal from beginning to end. (see below) Our Art Supply Encyclopedia on has videos with detailed explanations on each charcoal tool.


Charcoal Drawing & Cross-Hatching, video course on

Instead of limiting yourself to just drawing with pencil, experiment with other drawing materials such as charcoal, conte crayon, chalk pastels, Caran d’Ache crayons, india ink, oil pastels, etc. Charcoal in particular is a great drawing material because it motivates students to develop an approach to drawing that is bolder and more physically engaging. Just using these drawing materials will distinguish you from the other student portfolios, and will inspire you to experiment with drawing in a bolder and looser manner.

This student charcoal drawing below was drawn by directly observing an artichoke, and then repeating the artichoke multiple times throughout the composition by drawing it from different points of view.


Read this article I wrote for how to practice drawing, and this other article I wrote for how what kind of mindset and approach is necessary for drawing. If you don’t have access to rigorous art classes at your school, a good option would be to watch our free video courses on

7) Have excellent photographs of your artwork.

One of my colleagues once said to me “As artists, we live and die by our photographs.”  In a portfolio situation, this could not be more true. A poor photograph of your artwork is hugely distracting and can really make or break an admission officer’s initial reaction to the work.

A quality photograph of your artwork will have 1) even lighting, 2) be neatly cropped in Photoshop, 3) be appropriately color balanced, 4) be in focus, 5) taken on a high quality digital camera. Despite smart phones having decent cameras, they are definitely not sufficient for the quality of photograph you need for a portfolio.  Invest the money and buy a high quality digital camera.

The student collage seen below has all of the requirements for an excellent photograph.


Ideally, it’s best to hire a professional photographer to shoot your photographs, but that is astronomically expensive.  You can do it yourself by investing some standard photography equipment. Purchase a kit with 2 stand lights with umbrellas, with photo flood bulbs that are 250 watts to 500 watts each. These lighting kits aren’t super cheap, but regular incandescent and florescent lighting is not sufficient to produce high quality photographs. Regular lights will not produce the color accurately, and you will not get good focus because the lights are not bright enough.

Set up the two stand lights so that there is one on the left, and one of the right, with your artwork on the wall in between the lights.  Having the lights directed from the left and right of the artwork creates lighting that will move evenly across the artwork.


Three-dimensional artwork is especially difficult to photograph well, and are the most problematic photographs for most students.  First, get a wide roll of paper that is a neutral color.  (don’t use fabric, fabric wrinkles too easily and therefore your background won’t be smooth and clean) Depending on the colors in your sculpture, choose either white, grey, brown, or black to create contrast so that the sculpture is visible against the back drop.  In the case of the student sculpture below, the white background is a poor choice because the sculpture is also white.  Therefore, the photograph lacks contrast and the sculpture is difficult to see.


In this photograph below, the grey background allows the white sculpture to be much more visible.  Additionally, the shadows are much darker and the contrast of the overall photograph is much crisper and stronger.


Tape the top of the paper roll to a board behind the artwork, and then gently pull down the paper roll so that it falls on the surface of the table.  Tape the paper to the table so that it is secure as you photograph. The roll of paper provides a smooth, clean, neat background for the sculpture to sit on. Too often students shoot photographs of 3-D work with distracting backgrounds.  A chronic problem is placing the sculpture on a table against a wall, creating an ugly horizon line between the table and the wall which looks terrible.

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Use natural light from a window if you can to light the sculpture, this will create soft shadows to articulate your piece well. If you don’t have a window available, use one of the stand lights from the lighting kit with a lighting umbrella to create a shadows that are more diffused and soft.  When the shadows are too harsh, they can make your sculpture look flat and they will lose their sense of volume in the photograph.


Avoid these problems: 1) uneven lighting where cast shadows visible, 2) glare on oil paintings, 3) have distracting background behind the artwork, 4) have inaccurate color, 5) be out of focus, 6) taken on a smart phone.

Get help from an art teacher

Creating a portfolio should not be an effort that you have to do entirely on your own. Think about it this way, would an aspiring concert pianist who is trying to get into Julliard try to figure out how to play a Rachmaninoff piano concerto on their own with no piano teacher?  Visual arts is no different from any other field, you have to get an outside opinion to improve.  Take the initiative to get a critique to an art teacher whose opinion you trust to get a thorough portfolio critique.  Or even better, ask a professional artist, or a an art professor who has experience helping students get into an undergraduate program. Watch the video below to get a sense of what an art critique involves, and what to expect.

Intro-CritiquesCritiques on

An art teacher can aid you in weeding out the weaker works, and provide invaluable advice about what direction to head in. Don’t rely only on yourself (or family members) to make decisions about what works go into your portfolio.  All art students and professional artists get stuck in their heads when looking at their own artwork, and frequently they aren’t able to make sound decisions. Another eye will provide a fresh perspective and objectivity to the evaluation process.


Purchase a portfolio critique on

If you don’t have an art teacher who can help you with your portfolio, you might consider purchasing a 30 min. portfolio video critique from  (watch the video above for info, and an interactive critique below)


Another option is to take a weekend or night class at a local art school, museum, or art center. The instructor at one of those classes might be able to help you with your portfolio. Unfortunately, course offerings for high school students in the visual arts are terribly meager, so you might actually do better and have many more options looking at adult continuing education courses aimed at a specific medium you’re looking to improve in, such as drawing.

Below are 2 video critiques I did featuring art school portfolios by high school students Andy Wei and Becca Krauss:



Many art schools and colleges also offer summer courses at the college level, and you might consider attending a residential pre-college program at an art school like the six week RISD Pre-College program. You can read about my own experience teaching at and attending RISD Pre-College back in 1993 here. For every high school student, trying to do prepare a portfolio entirely on their own is daunting, and having the structure of  a class or summer program can be enormously useful to stay on track.

National Portfolio Day

Finally, the real test of the strength of your portfolio is attending a local National Portfolio Day event, where representatives from art schools and colleges with solid art programs across the country are available to critique your portfolio in person.  If you’re really serious about being accepted into a high caliber undergraduate art program, this is the event to go to. I recommend going in the fall of your junior year, just to get a feel for things, and then again in the fall of your senior year. Watch the video below for what an art critique can be like:


Be ready for very long lines and huge crowds, especially at the big name schools like RISD. The first year that I went as a junior in high school, despite having waited 2 hours in line, I didn’t even get a review from RISD because the line was so obscenely long that at a certain point they just turned people away.  The second year I went, having learned my lesson the year before, I went to wait in line for the doors to open two hours in advance. I was the first person in when the doors opened, and raced immediately to the RISD table.

At this event, brace yourself for harsh words.  It’s not uncommon for students to be told at National Portfolio Day that they essentially have to start over from scratch because their portfolio is headed in the wrong direction. Reviewers will be candid and direct about the quality and type of work that their school is looking for, so don’t be discouraged if you get a tough critique. Rather, be glad that you got the feedback you needed to get yourself headed in the right direction.


Be prepared for a wide range of different opinions, and critiquing styles.  Some reviewers are concrete and helpful, while others can be less so. This post I wrote talks about tips for how to present your portfolio, and how to interact with admissions officers at the event. Many students don’t know how to present/prepare their artwork in a way that is practical at an event like this, and surprisingly, some students can be rude to the admissions officers who are reviewing their portfolios which never serves you well.

Keep in mind that a portfolio review from any school is valuable, especially the ones that are critical and offer feedback and how to improve. It’s not always fun to hear your artwork criticized, but remember that you’re not at National Portfolio Day to have your ego massaged. You’re there to figure out what you can do to improve portfolio, and see how your portfolio will hold up in the competitive college admissions process.

View our gallery of Art School Portfolios by several students on


ART PROF is a free, online educational platform for visual arts for people of all ages and means. features video courses, art critiques, an encyclopedia of art supplies, and more.

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